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50 True Crime Books You Should Have On Your Reading List Summarized in 50 Words or Less

Updated on February 22, 2017
Kim Bryan profile image

Tennessee-based freelance writer with a passion for true crime, a thirst for knowledge, and an obsession with lists.

There are so many excellent books in the underrated genre of true crime it's difficult to narrow this list to only fifty.

The following list is 50 true crimes books summarized in 50 words or less which are certain to leave you questioning humanity and eager for justice.

1. Helter Skelter by Victor Bugliosi (1974)

Retired Los Angeles District Attorney Victor Bugliosi recounts the murders of actress Sharon Tate and her friends and the La Bianca family in August 1969. In great detail, he outlines the events instigated by cultist Charles Manson and executed by his followers in hopes of triggering a race war.

2. Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson (1976)

Author Thomas Thompson tells the story of Dr. John Hill who married Texas elite Joan Robinson. When she mysteriously dies a few years later, her father is determined to prove his son-in-law is responsible. Sex, money, and murder; this book has it all.

3. In Broad Daylight by Harry Maclean (1990)

Investigative journalist Harry Maclean spent several months researching this book about the murder Ken McElroy in Skimore, Missouri. Area residents were long tired of McElroy's bullying but when he assaulted an elderly couple after they accused his son of stealing, they decided it was time for pioneer justice.

4. Small Sacrifices by Ann Rule (1987)

This book, turned made-for-television movie by the same title, recounts the story of Diane Downs who shot her three children to win the affections of a former boyfriend. She claimed it was the work of a carjacker but the two children who survive say otherwise.

5. Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss(1983)

Late investigative journalist Joe McGinniss tells about the 1970 Charlotte, North Carolina murders of Army doctor Jeffrey MacDonald's family. Surviving with only superficial wounds, MacDonald quickly becomes detective's top suspect which leads to prison sentence of life without parole. McGinniss spent years corresponding with McDonald and investigating the fascinating case.

6. Evidence of Love by John Bloom and Jim Atkinson (1984)

Reporters John Bloom and Jim Atkins were in the courtroom every day of the Candy Montgomery trial. Montgomery was accused of killing Betty Gore, wife of Allen Gore with whom Montgomery had affair recently. Aside from the trial, these authors spent countless researching the histories of all key players.

7. The Night Stalker by Philip Carlo (1996)

During the summer of 1985, Richard Ramirez terrorized the sleeping citizens of Los Angeles. He would be given the moniker "The Night Stalker." During his thorough investigation of this chilling story, author Philip Carlo corresponded with the serial killer. Reading the words of a killer make this book unforgettable.

8. The Devil In the White City by Erik Larson (2003)

Author Erik Larson entwines the story of two killers in one well-written book. The main subject is a man who used the alias H.H. Holmes. In anticipation of the world's fair of 1893 arriving in Chicago, he built an large, intricate caste designed with only one thing in mind: murder.

9. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)

Often considered the first true crime book to reach best seller status, Capote's book reads like a novel as it recounts the murders of Herb Clutter, his wife, and teenage children in 1959 Olathe, Kansas by recent parolees Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. Both men were later executed by hanging.

10. Bitter Blood by Jerry Bledsoe (1988)

Having inspired a made-for-television movie by the same name, this book chronicles the insane shenanigans of Susie Newsom Lynch. Susie was used to having her way and when her ex-husband won't take her back, she uses their sons as pawns in a wicked game - a fatal game.

Bitter Blood by Jerry Bledsoe (1988)
Bitter Blood by Jerry Bledsoe (1988) | Source

11. She Wanted It All by Kathryn Casey

Celeste Beard was a trophy wife but she was no longer happy with her life of wealth and a devoted media-mogul husband. When she begins a lesbian love affair, she convinces the woman to murder her husband so they can run away together. Things seldom go as planned, however.

12. Son of a Grifter: The Twisted Tale of Sante and Kenny Kimes, the Most Notorious Con Artists in America by Kent Walker (2001)

Although she'd married wealthy, Sante Kimes taught her sons the dark art of being a con artist and thief. As a grown man, youngest son Kenny was his mother's partner in crime and co-defendant when the pair up the stakes by murdering a wealthy Manhattan socialite in 1998.

13. The Darkest Night: Two Sisters, a Brutal Murder, and the Loss of Innocence in a Small Town by Ron Franscell (1994)

Author Ron Franscell tells the heartbreaking story of sisters who were abducted, assaulted, and thrown over a Wyoming canyon bridge to die. One of them, however, would survive. But what is survival? Franscell follows a survivor's life as she copes with guilt, shame, and questions the why of it all.

14. Blind Justice: a Murder, a Scandal, and a Brother's Search to Avenge His Sister's Death by Ray and Edie Gibson and Randall Turner

Chicago attorney Alan Masters was outraged when he learned of his wife's affair. With the help of crooked cops, Alan disposes of his wife in a canal. Between his mafia connections and paid friends in law enforcement, Alan was certain his wife's disappearance would never be investigated. He was wrong.

Unlike the two part made-for-television miniseries which was heavily influenced by the victim's brother, Stella Bumbo's book Until the Twelfth of Never: The Deadly Divorce of Dan & Betty Broderick is more balanced, not sparing either party's dirty deeds from being exposed.

15. Until the Twelfth of Never: The Deadly Divorce of Dan & Betty Broderick by Bella Stumbo (1993)

Betty Broderick had worked full time, while raising three children and supported her husband, Dan, who was a full-time law school student. When Dan leaves her just a few years after passing the bar for another woman, what ensues is a story of bitterness, jealousy madness, and double homicide.

16. Murder In Little Egypt by Darcy O'Brien (1989)

The residents of Little Egypt, Illinois loved Dr. John Dale Cavaness, but only because they didn't know about the evil husband and father his family suffered at home. Those pristine images would be shattered, however, when Dr. Cavaness is convicted of murdering one son and suspected of killing another.

17. Poisoned Blood by Phillip Ginsburg (1989)

The more Audrey Hilley spent, the more people had she had to kill. Released on bail for attempted murder charges, she went on the run. . What follows is a story about an assumed name, a faked illness and death, and a resurrection under the guise of a twin sister.

18. The Man With the Candy by Jack Olsen (1974)

Olsen recalls the case of Houston serial killer, Dean Corll. In the late 1960's, Corll owned and operated a candy story with his mother while hiding a dark secret: he was responsible for the murders of 28 young men. for whom he'd paid two teenage boys to "recruit" for him.

19. Confessions of an American Black Widow by Gregg Olsen (1998)

Recently reprinted under the new title Bitch On Wheels, author Gregg Olsen discusses Sharon Nelson, a Colorado woman who loved men and their money. But she couldn't marry the man she really loved, Gary Starr Adams, or else police may suspect he was responsible for murdering two of her husbands.

20. The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule (1980)

The first of Rule's books recalls the case of America's most infamous killer, Ted Bundy. She made Bundy's acquaintance when they worked side-by-side at a suicide hotliner. She was shocked when she learned he was a serial killer, spurring her to write one of the best Bundy books.

The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule (1980)
The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule (1980) | Source

21. Killer Clown: The John Wayne Gacy Murders by Terri Sullivan and Peter Maiken (1983)

Terri Sullivan was the Chicago-area district attorney who helped put Illinois serial killer John Wayne Gacy behind bars until the day he died. Gacy is responsible for the murders of as many as 33 young men, with several of them having been buried underneath his home.

22. John Wayne Gacy: Defending a Monster by Sam L. Amirante and Danny Broderick (2012)

On the topic of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, following Gacy's death in prison, his attorney Sam Amirante published a book recalling the death-threats and harassment he endured when he agreed to represent Gacy and learned more about the man considered a monster.

23. Deranged: The Shocking True Story of America's Most Fiendish Killer by Harold Schechter (1998)

In line with his career as a history professor, Schechter intensely explores the life and crimes of Albert Fish in his appropriately titled book, Deranged. During the 1930's, Fish was responsible for the kidnapping and murder of countless children.

24. Bitter Almonds: The True Story of Mothers, Daughters and the Seattle Cyanide Murders by Gregg Olsen (1993)

Stella Nickell needed the poisoned Excedrin capsules to kill her husband. As long as they didn't suspect her, insurance would pay double indemnity. But his death was ruled natural. So Stella poisons more capsules but placed those on a store shelf; eventually leading to the death of Susan Snow.

25. Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York by James Livingston (2010)

Mary Alice Livingston was part of one of New York's most prestigious families. In 1896, she was accused of murdering her mother by poison. Although considered an enigma of her time being a single mother of multiple children, her marital status would ultimately serve her well in the end.

26. The Devil's Rooming House: The True Story of America's Deadliest Female Serial Killer by M. William Phelps (2010)

During the late 1800's, Connecticut's Amy Archer-Gilligan operated a boarding house for the elderly and infirm. In addition to collect rent from her tenants, she sometimes killed them for their money. Although resident turn-over was high, no one questioned it - except for one man's very suspicious sister.

27.The Boy in the Box: The Unsolved Case Of America's Unknown Child by David Stout (2008)

In 1957, the battered corpse of a small boy was found in a cardboard box on the side of a wooded road in north Philadelphia. Despite countless hours of investigation by dedicated detectives, this case remains unsolved. The child's body was buried beneath a tombstone which reads, "America's Unknown Child."

28. Before He Wakes: A True Story of Money, Marriage, Sex and Murder by Jerry Bledsoe (1996)

Even after two of Barbara Stager's husbands died in almost identical type of accidents, police believed it was just a terrible coincidence; that is, until her second husband's ex-wife hands over audio tapes her ex-husband had left in her care just in case something like this happened.

29. Murder in the Stacks: Penn State, Betsy Aardsma, and the Killer Who Got Away by David Dekok (2014)

When Betsy Aardsma was found dead in the stacks of Pattee Library at Penn State library on November 28, 1969, no one could have guessed it would take more than forty years to solve her murder. Author David Dekok recounts the tireless efforts of detectives to get justice for Betsy.

30. Poisoned Love by Caitlin Rother (2005)

Investigative journalist and author Caitlin Rother tells the story of California's Kristin Rossum who stages her husband's murder to look like suicide but detectives see only a scene straight out of American Beauty, which they later learn is Kristin's favorite movie as well as about her drug addiction and boyfriend.

Poisoned Love by Caitlin Rother (2005)
Poisoned Love by Caitlin Rother (2005) | Source

31. Starvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific Northwest by Gregg Olsen (1997)

During the 1800's, Olalla, Washington Dr. Linda Burfield Hazzard wouldn't go to prison for killing her patients by starving then to death but for stealing their valuables following their deaths; leading to her serving only two years before she would be released and free to open a new clinic.

32.The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town by John Grisham (2006)

Ron Williamson was young man headed for a baseball career until he became addicted to drugs and alcohol. While Williamson was admittedly guilty to much, he declared his innocence when accused of murder. It was to no avail and he would spend years in prison before his innocence was proven.

33. The Dreams of Ada by Robert Mayer (1987)

Speaking of wrongfully convicted men in Ada, Oklahoma, author Robert Mayer recounts the story of Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, who were convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of store clerk Denice Haraway in 1984. It's an intense story of politics and religion combining forces to demand justice.

34. Dr. Sam Sheppard on Trial: The Prosecutors and the Marilyn Sheppard Murder by Jack P. DeSario and William D. Mason (2004)

Many have attempted but few have been as successful as this one at telling the story of Dr. Sam Sheppard who was convicted of his wife's 1954 murder. Ten years later, he was acquitted at a second trial. There are no other suspects so the question remains: Who killed Marilyn?

35. Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt (2002)

In 1993, three young boys would disappear while playing in their neighborhood. Police immediately honed in on three teenage boys who were outcasts for their black hair, dark clothing, and sullen demeanor. Convicted on flimsy evidence, this book presents the untold story of the injustice running amok in this case.

36. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (1994)

The darker side of Georgia comes to light in this book about the killing of a male prostitute by Savannah socialite Jim Williams. Told from Williams' point of view and enthralls readers with a lively story full of colorful folks, dark secrets, and a case which took years to resolve.

37. Fatal Kiss by Suzanne Barr (2005)

When an insurance salesman is found dead in the North Carolina woods, police immediately suspect the man's murder to be nothing short of murder and his wife Sylvia is their first suspect. With two prior deaths on her watch being questionable, detectives are determined to stop Sylvia from killing again.

38. The Devil in Pew Number Seven by Rebecca Nichols Alonzo (2010)

Author Becky Alonzo remembers the man with the hateful eyes sitting in the pew of the church her father had agreed to pastor. He was used to bullying parishioners to get his way but Becky's father refused. The man with the hateful eyes, however, wouldn't take no for an answer.

39. Not Lost Forever: My Story of Survival by Carmina Salcido with Steve Jackson (2009)

In 1986, immigrant Ramon Salcido murdered his family; slashing the throat of his toddler daughter Carmino last and leaving her for dead but the little girl was a fighter and miraculously survived. As an adult, she recounts the events of that horrible day and her feelings toward her father today.

40. Doc by Jack Olsen (1989)

During the latter half of the 20th century, the women of Lovell, Wyoming, believed the town's trusted doctor was taking good care of them until some of these sheltered, often naive Mormon women discovered the truth only on their wedding nights. Ashamed, many never told but others would expose him.

Doc by Jack Olsen
Doc by Jack Olsen | Source

41. Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge by Jim Schutze (1997)

Bobby Kent was a bully, especially to his best friend Marty. When Marty begins dating Lisa, she insists her boyfriend stand up to Kent but when Marty seems unable, Lisa rounds up her rogue friends and they devise a plan to stop a bully once and for all.

42. A Beautiful Child: A True Story of Hope, Horror, and an Enduring Human Spirit by Matt Birkbeck (2004)

Sharon Marshall was intelligent and beautiful, her teachers believed she was destined for great things. No one knew dark secrets lurking with the Marshall family. Sharon Marshall wasn't really her name but truth was, she had no idea what her real name was. She would die never knowing the answer.

43. For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Chicago by Simon Baatz (2008)

Two young men, born to wealthy Chicago socialites, who apart were fine but together were deadly. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were too smart for police to catch them, they believed and executed what they believed to be the perfect crime with the murder of 14 year-old Bobby Franks.

44. Blind Faith by Joe McGinniss (1989)

Robert Marshall was in a lot of debt and in love with another woman. Divorce wasn't an option., Marshall couldn't afford to lose half of everything or have his massive debt discovered. Faking a robbery and murdering his wife seemed a better choice and Marshall sets the plans in motion.

Although it is difficult to read because of its graphic nature, A Child Called It is a must read for anyone who can stomach the first-person account of California's most horrific child abuse case.

45. A Child Called "It" by Dave Pelzer (1995)

As a child, Dave Pelzer's alcoholic, emotionally unstable mother tortured him, and played torturous games - often nearly killing him. Little Dave learned to play his mother's games in order to survive; all the while dreaming of someone who love him, take care of him, and call him their own.

46. Runaway Devil: How Forbidden Love Drove a 12-Year-Old to Murder Her Family by Robert Remington and Sherri Zickefoose (2010)

When Alberta parents Marc and Debra Richardson told their daughter Jasmine, 12, she wasn't allowed to date 23 year-old Jeremy Steinke, the duo came up with a plan to be together forever...except Jasmine was hiding crucial evidence in her school locker, leading to their arrest and conviction.

47. Lethal Marriage: The Unspeakable Crimes of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka by Nick Pron (1996)

It was the coupling from hell: Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. He was a sexual deviant, she was a co-dependent woman willing to do anything to please her man - including drugging her own sister. No other book about this case provides the in-depth details as does this one.

48. The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder by Charles Graeber (2013)

When the rumors of an angel of death being among them, staff at a Pennsylvania hospital didn't want to believe it and when nurse Charles Cullens came under suspicion, it was even harder to accept. He was friendly and helpful and everyone liked him but Charles was hiding dark secrets.

49. Son: A Psychopath and His Victims by Jack Olsen (1983)

Kevin Coe was the son of socialite diva Ruth Coe, who was demanding of people in general but especially so of her only son. Kevin tried desperately to please his mother usually to no avail so he sought control of his life elsewhere: sexually assaulting the innocent women of Spokane.

50. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer (2003)

Investigative reporter Jon Krakauer discusses life inside the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LFDS) and the crimes committed under the guise of religion. Based on interviews with former members and years of research, Krakauer tells a story readers are certain to never forget.

How Many of These Books Have You Read?

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© 2017 Kim Bryan

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    • Allie Brito profile image

      Allie Brito 7 months ago

      My friends and I LOVE true crime stories. Thank you for this list!